'Greatest' came from NFL's best

December 14, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

On Dec. 28, 1958, the NFL's best offense and defense, its finest quarterback, its best possession receiver and big-play threat, its most dominant defensive lineman and prototype offensive tackles, its best-rounded linebacker and its most promising assistant coaches all took the same field at Yankee Stadium.

The championship game that resulted between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts is widely known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played."

It is most often remembered for the remarkable drives authored by John Unitas, for the NFL's first sudden-death overtime and for introducing professional football as a potent television product to millions of new viewers.

But lost in talk of the game's impact is an appreciation of how much football talent took the field that afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

"I think there were an extraordinary number of great athletes involved," said Ernie Accorsi, who watched the game as a 17-year-old Colts fan and went on to become general manager for both franchises.

"You can still name them 50 years later," said Sam Huff, one of 15 Hall of Famers who either played or coached in the game.

"They were reinventing the way the game was played," said author Mark Bowden, who re-created the contest in his book The Best Game Ever. "It was just becoming a more interesting game."

On the rise

At the time, the Colts and Giants knew they were playing against stellar opponents but had little notion that names such as Unitas, Huff, Frank Gifford and Gino Marchetti would ring out in football history. For one thing, many of those greats were just establishing themselves. For another, the league had only 12 franchises with rosters of 35 players each, so matchups between strong teams invariably brought together clusters of future Hall of Famers.

Unitas was only the start of it. His favorite target, Raymond Berry, was a perfectionist who foreshadowed the remarkable level of preparation the public takes for granted with modern players. On the other side of the Colts' offense, Lenny Moore was simply a super athlete, the genetic and stylistic godfather of big-play threats such as Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook. To a man, the old Colts call him the finest talent they played with.

Accorsi called Moore and Gale Sayers the greatest halfbacks he saw. "Lenny could have made the Hall of Fame as either a pure receiver or a pure runner," he said.

In protecting all that skill, Jim Parker showed enough strength to fell an ox and enough quickness to stay between a cheetah and its prey. The nimble 330-pound tackles of today are his heirs.

Parker honed his craft in practice against one of the game's greatest pass rushers. "The first three or four times, he never touched me," Marchetti remembered of their sessions. "So he says, 'Gino, will you work with me and show me how to deal with a fast player?' We did, and he developed such footwork that he was just impossible to get off balance."

Berry remembered Parker going against 6-foot-8 behemoth Doug Atkins of the Chicago Bears. Atkins liked to grab linemen by the pads and just flip them over. But when he tried the move on Parker, nothing.

"It was hilarious to watch," Berry said. "It was like Atkins had grabbed a fireplug. We never had to worry about him after that."

That was just the offense. At defensive end, Marchetti was big enough for his day at 6-4, 245 pounds. But his real advantages in getting to the quarterback were speed and an endless bag of moves. Sounds a bit like Terrell Suggs, no?

"He was right there with Bruce Smith and Reggie White," Gifford said. "He was so quick that he just destroyed offensive tackles."

Accorsi remembered a story San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Bob St. Clair told about Marchetti. After a particularly rough day against the Colts, the Hall of Fame lineman walked up behind Marchetti and lightly pawed his jersey. "I just wanted to be able to say I touched you once today," St. Clair quipped.

If you prefer your linemen huge and light of foot, like Haloti Ngata, then Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, all 6 feet, 6 inches and 284 pounds of him, would've been your man on the Colts. Art Donovan wasn't as great a physical specimen, but few penetrated the middle of the line better than the five-time All-Pro.

In the secondary, a crew of Ed Reed-style ballhawks - Andy Nelson, Milt Davis, Ray Brown and Carl Taseff - picked off a league-high 35 passes.

The Giants were pretty good, too.

On defense, coordinator Tom Landry revolutionized play with his 4-3 alignment, which put the onus on middle linebacker Huff to be smart, swift and strong enough to check every move of an offensive master such as Unitas. At end, the Giants had their own version of Marchetti in Andy Robustelli, whose quickness and thoughtful study of offenses made him a match for hosses such as Parker. Inside at tackle, Rosey Grier, who played hurt against Baltimore, could plug any hole.

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